The Mesa Public Schools Governing Board is taking on an ambitious schedule in its hunt for a new superintendent with hopes of having a new chief executive in place by April.
The board announced last week it will launch a national search – the same approach it used to hire former superintendent Ember Conley in 2018.
Conley abruptly resigned on Dec. 10, following questions raised over how she compensated her top aides, according to board President Elaine Miner.
Her disclosure echoed allegations made in a private criminal complaint to the state Attorney General’s Office accusing Conley of theft and embezzlement for giving out administrative raises and promotions higher than the amounts approved by the board.
No action has yet been taken on the complaint, filed by former board president Ben Smith.
The board has yet to release the district’s internal audit that ultimately forced Conley out.
With former associate superintendent Peter Lesar filling in, the board wants to name a new superintendent by the end of March.
“When we do this job, we do what’s harder because it’s sometimes the best,” said Miner at a special meeting last week. “Doing a national search is definitely harder.”
“But because of the edge an internal candidate has,” she continued, ‘’the likelihood of us not finding someone better than what we have here at home is there. But wouldn’t you like to know we did choose the best even with a national search?”
While board members all agreed they want a candidate who will continue Conley’s prior work – such as the elaborate three-year strategic plan – opinions initially differed on where to look for her successor.
Board member Steven Peterson emphasized he preferred to find a candidate internally before opening the search to the public.
“If people know we have a strong leaning toward an internal candidate, would they even want to apply?” he asked.
He suggested first posting the job internally, like the district does with principals.
Peterson also said he thinks the board should judge each candidate’s “collaborative potential” rather than “innovative potential” – which was the focal point in their last search.
Peterson made it clear he wants the transition to be as smooth as possible.
“A leader I would like to see take the next step would be not one who is necessarily going to come in with great new ideas and redo everything we’ve done, but someone who can effectively lead us in implementing the path of what we’ve already started,” he continued.
Kiana Sears mirrored Peterson’s sentiments, saying she wants to see a survey asking district leaders for input.
Jenny Richardson also expressed her desire to find an MPS candidate but posed the question of pushing the timeline further back.
Describing the district as “battle-wounded,” Miner then shifted the conversation.
Playing “devil’s advocate,” she pointed out the many ways in which the district benefited from bringing in an outside candidate – referring to Conley.
“The district is a better district now, in some respects, than it was before,” she said. “I think we did a really good job and some unfortunate things occurred, but I don’t think it erases the good things that happened.”
“I don’t want to let what the last couple of months have been, dictate moving forward,” Miner added.
Board member Marcie Hutchinson said she believes the district has a public duty to exhaust all options.
She said if an internal candidate truly is the best, then they won’t suffer from a little competition.
“We want the best superintendent for our students, and perhaps at this time, an internal candidate is the way to go,” she said. “We have very many fine people who could do it; however, I don’t see a problem in them competing.”
She added that her ideal candidate should embody the “portrait of a graduate” outlined in the district’s strategic plan, which seeks to prepare students for an evolving job market.
After a lengthy discussion, the board voted 5-0 to approve a national search.
Chief Strategy and Information Officer Helen Hollands presented a rough timeline to the board, with a deadline for selecting the new superintendent by March 20.
The goal is to allow the new employee enough time to transition before Lesar steps down in July.
“At the end of this search process, I will not be surprised one bit if your superintendent is presently employed by Mesa Public Schools,” said Lesar.
Board members are scheduled to meet with a search firm sometime this week to finalize the contract, process and timeline. The firm will then open the search to the public on Jan. 17.
Community surveys and stakeholder roundtables will be held throughout February, explained Hollands. Finalists will be selected sometime between Feb. 24-27.
“It would probably whittle down, I would say, to two, no more than four individuals,” Hollands told the board. “The recommendation is then to conduct site visits after that if you are interested.”
A majority of the requirements set for the 2018 search will remain the same, Hollands continued.
MPS will advertise for a candidate with administrative experience in education with current superintendent certificate and doctoral degree.
Hutchinson suggested, “strong ethics” should be highlighted.
“All of the things we’re talking about – collaboration, listening, communication – the purpose is trust. To build trust within the district and community,” she said. “Public education ought to be about promoting the public good.”
The base salary for the new chief will be $220,000, plus performance pay and benefits.